The Escape Artists
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $28.00)
When you pick up a book about pilots of World War I, you usually enjoy the aerial antics and dogfighting adventures of the flyboys of the era. But much of the story often took place after the dogfights had concluded. Allied soldiers from the frozen trenches as well as pilots removed from the flak-filled skies would sometimes find themselves imprisoned in Germany’s harsh prisoner-of-war camps, often enduring horrific conditions. The Escape Artists, by Neal Bascomb, is a gripping account of the Allied prisoners of “Hellminden” (i.e., Holzminden) camp desperate to break out in order to return to the aerial fight. Drawing from information he acquired from never-before-seen memoirs and personal letters, the author produces a compelling story of a band of daredevil pilots who successfully pulled off the greatest prison break of the Great War.
This elaborate escape plan, led by ace pilot Capt. David Gray of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), involves risky tunnel engineering, disguises, forged documents, fake walls and hidden spaces within the soldiers’ barracks, along with an aboveaverage amount of resolve and bravery among the soldiers. Once past the watchtowers and constant patrols, this band of half-starved prison mates (a dozen in all) faced a dangerous 150-mile trek through enemy-occupied territory to their ultimate destination: free Holland.
The tale begins with accounts of how the pilots were captured, followed by descriptions of several exciting though ill-fated escape attempts and the transfer of prisoners from one camp to another. The pilots’ individual stories converge in the town of Holzminden and the new prison camp intended to hold the most troublesome of prisoners. The prisoners continue their efforts to escape their confinement—all except David Gray, who, after much time in solitary confinement, does not involve himself in the various schemes. He has resolved to have in place a foolproof plan before making any further attempts at escape.
Plans, however, seldom go as intended. Surprise inspections and searches, enhanced security, and the addition of prison guards increase the chances that their escape plots will be discovered. The prisoners at Holzminden were indeed jailbreakers of the first order, and their plans are elaborate and well thought out. But the transfer of prisoners to other areas weaken the escape team. The responsibility for the tunnel project ultimately falls to David Gray, who becomes, in essence, the “father of the tunnel.”
The lengths to which Gray and his men go to acquire the needed supplies for the 150-mile trek to freedom is impressive. Properly chosen bribes of the ill-treated prison guards and orderlies prove useful when it comes to supplying the escape team. Gray’s own experience had taught him well of what would and would not work. He thinks and rethinks his plans, trying to identify the reason previous attempts had failed and which current strategy would be the safest. The tunnel is finally long enough for the team to exit into the adjacent rye fields beyond the wire fence, and the men divide into small groups, each with its own wellconcocted plan for its run to the border. Finally comes the breakout, and the pace of the story increases until its climax.
It was refreshing to read a tale set during the Great War, as opposed to the more popular WW II era. It’s interesting to note that, at this time, there were no survival courses or training for the military. It was experiences like these that led to improved training of future soldiers and airmen, preparing them for the possibility of being caught behind enemy lines and becoming prisoners of war.—